Wayne “Blue” Burns was one of the first black entertainers to play East Berlin when The Wall came down. His band instrument in school was the trombone, and for years he was known as a bass player with many household-name bands in South Louisiana. But his first love was the guitar.
He earned a Grammy playing bass with Clifton Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Burns was nominated for another with the King of Zydeco’s son, C.J. Chenier, with whom he also traveled the world and performed in every state in the U.S. He’s backed Percy Sledge, Barbara Lynn, Ernie K-Doe, Betty Wright and Al Green. He’s also been a member of Lil’ Buck and the Topcats, Buckwheat Zydeco and Lonesome Sundown and plenty of others, including his own, Wayne and the Invaders, 41 years ago.
Now, at 65 years old, Burns is back to fronting his own group, the Wayne “Blue” Burns Band.
“There’s nobody but God giving me what I always wanted to do,” says Burns. “Look how it came back to me. He had given it to me before, but I tried to do it without Him leading me. But now, it’s more better than it ever was. That guitar came back to my life like that and that’s how I started playing guitar again.”
Until about three years ago, Burns had not played the guitar since 1971. A surprise visit from a friend changed all of that. Burns says he was sitting in his living room when Dwayne Delcour dropped by and showed him his new guitar. Burns took a turn at it, and it all came back in quite an amazing way.
“I started messing around and he said, ‘Man, I didn’t know you played guitar,’” Burns recalls. “I said, ‘I used to play guitar.’ He said, ‘Do you want it?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Do you want it?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, you can have it. I’m giving it to you.’”
So Delcour gave Burns the guitar — “It wasn’t a real expensive one, you know,” notes Burns — and its guitar case, too. A short time later, Burns ran into a couple of other musician friends looking for a gig, and lo and behold the Wayne “Blue” Burns Band was born.
It began when Burns and his wife Pearlie decided to take an alternate route home from Festival International de Louisiane. Burns saw Tee Don Landry, known for his rubboard skills and business. “When I went that other way, I walked right into Tee Don. Tee said, ‘Blue. I’ve started playing drums again. If you need a drummer for something …’ I said, ‘I do.’ And that’s how that started.”
A little while after that, Bobby Matthews, who’d played bass with Sunpie Barnes, was sitting on his front porch. He and Burns got to talking and the blues trio was complete. Matthews’ work schedule soon forced him to bow out of the band and Kevin Weekly stepped in.
The last time Burns fronted a band, Wayne and the Invaders, was in 1968. A lot of music has been to the bridge and back since then. And with that comes experience and even inspiration. “I’ll tell you what. Right now, I’m more educated than I’ve ever been. I’m older, more wiser and know what I’m doing,” he says. “And my music is flowing in me – it’s just flowing in me, man. Anytime I pick up the guitar that stuff just wants to come out, it just wants to come out.
“Man,” he says. “I like it like that.”
Overall, Burns has about 52 years of playing music. A native of Jeanerette, he made a guitar himself using a bicycle inner tube, rubber bands, a bowl and a board when he was about six or seven years old. His folks, Frank and Vera Burns, noticed their son’s inordinate interest in music so they headed to Stagg’s Music Store in New Iberia where “My mama bought my first guitar,” says Burns. “I was eight years old when she bought that guitar.”
But it was at the neighbor’s house, the home of a couple of elderly women, where he first saw a guitar: Two, in fact.
“The first time I went to their house, my mama took me to their house, and when I walked in the door, the first thing I saw on the wall was two guitars,” says Burns. “They were gospel singers. That’s when I first saw a guitar. They wouldn’t let you touch them, though. They wouldn’t let you touch them. They would play on the porch and I would here that and that stayed with me,” he says. “It stayed with me.”
Burns says his mother would buy B.B. King records and she would play them and say, “Wayne, listen to this,” he says. “When I would practice, I didn’t think she would be paying attention to me and she would say, ‘Wayne, you’re hitting the strings too hard. Learn to play them soft.”
As kids are wont to be, Burns would sometimes jump ahead to another song before finishing the one he would be playing.
“She’d say, ‘Let me tell you something. When you play a song, finish that song. Then you go to that other song,” says Burns, laughing at the memory. “She was right. She was right. She was a good coach for me, now. “
As he grew older, Burns became aware of musicians and bands, locally and from nearby towns, such as Jay Nelson and the Jumpers, Guitar Gary (Gary Alexander) and his Blues Band, Lonnie Brooks and Lonesome Sundown (Cornelius Green). “When I started playing the guitar, I used to go by these guys like Jay Nelson and Guitar Gary and they would show me things on the guitar,” he says. “That’s how I started learning to play guitar. That was my first instrument.”
When he was around 12 years old, Burns says he went to Guitar Gary’s home one day and started picking out bass lines on the guitar when Guitar Gary said, “’I could use you with what you’re doing. I know you’re young, but I can use you with what you’re doing.’”
So Burns’ first gig was as a 12-year-old bass player. At 14 he began playing with Jay Nelson’s band and Lonesome Sundown. “I never lived the life of a teenager, no,” says Burns. “I never did play with people my age; it was always older people. Older people that took me in when they’d seen my interest in music and seen what I could do.
“When people were shooting marbles and playing around, I was playing music,” he says. “I was riding a Greyhound bus from Jeanerette at 14 years old to Opelousas and meeting Lonesome Sundown and coming back on Monday. That’s right, man. I came up with dudes that could teach. That’s the kind of musicians I came up with. I didn’t come up with guys my age like that. I was always with grown people that played music.”
In this way, Burns could avoid pitfalls and mistakes that younger musicians do and make – to a certain extent, that is. After all, he was a kid.
“And man, when I was learning, they’d get mad sometimes,” Burns says, recalling a time when “that old dude who played bass, Louis Landry, pulled me off to the side and told me one day, he said, ‘Wayne. You see what he’s trying to teach you? Learn all you can. Learn all you can from us. In years to come, you’ll never regret it.’ And he was right.”
Burns’ Grammy came while playing with Clifton Chenier, but he hadn’t heard of zydeco until he moved to Lafayette. “I wasn’t raised in zydeco. I didn’t come up with that. I came up with blues and rhythm and blues,” says Burns. “When I was coming up I was playing places like Morgan City, New Orleans. At a young age I was playing down in Franklin, La., all down that way. Houma, Thibodaux.
It was during these travels that Burns, 16, was in a “bad wreck” on a way to a gig with Jay Nelson and the Jumpers that also severely injured a couple of other band members. “It was Jan. 27, 1965. I’ll never fort that. I got 85 percent of my bones broken on me. I stayed in New Orleans at the charity hospital for about two months before they sent me home,” says Burns. And when they did release him, he was in a body cast and he slept in a hospital bed in his home for another month or so. “And when they took it off, I had to walk with crutches for a long time.”
During recovery and therapy, Burns couldn’t help but get, well, the blues. His sister, Leela, caught on to this and suggested that Burns check out the Chicken Shack, a club in Jeanerette to lift his spirits.
“My sister said, ‘They got a good band coming to play on Sunday. Why don’t you see, get out of the house, go walk around,’” Burns says. “I went to see them. It was Li’l Buck and the Topcats. That’s how I met him.”
And by the next time Lil’ Buck’s band came to town, Burns was on the bandstand with a slide trombone in hand. And a little further down the line, Lil’ Buck became a brother-in-law of Burns. For that matter, so did zydeco and blues musician Jude Taylor.
Burns and his trombone also played with Lonesome Sundown, Buckwheat’s Hitchhikers and backed Percy Sledge, Barbara Lynn, Ernie K-Doe, Al Green. It was when he was with the Hitchhikers on a gig that Buckwheat announced the gig was up, the band would be disbanded and he was going to pursue zydeco. “He said, ‘You play guitar and bass. Pick up one of those and get into zydeco,’” says Burns. “So that’s what I did. I picked up the bass and got into zydeco.”
Bass in hand, Burns’ zydeco career included stints with Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco, Fernest Arceneaux, Marcel Poulet, Sampy and the Bad Habits, C.J. Chenier and Lynn August. The hook-up with August began in 1994 and brought Burns to Europe again and then to Africa.
“We were playing at the Tornado, that’s on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.,” says Burns. “We were playing that night and we were there at the right time.” By that, Burns says government officials were looking for bands to send to Africa on a goodwill trip. “We went to seven countries in Africa.”
And that included Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Madagascar, says Burns. At one stop, after piling into a van, the guys headed to the hotel. “And when we get there, we start hearing drums,” says Burns, making the sound of drumming getting louder. “We said, ‘what’s all that?’” The answer came quickly: “They came to greet us.”
They experienced a drum circle, grass skirts and other customs and traditions. The Americans played here and there and when their music stopped, the guys would do a little sightseeing. “They would take us on a safari and let us see how they really lived,” says Burns, adding that some in the band toured atop horses, but he preferred a ground-level view. “I would rather walk to see things.”
Of course Burns’ travels and adventures are documented. “I always wanted to swing on a vine,” Burns says, laughing at a photo of him doing just that. “I got a chance to do it in Africa.”
The touring life brought both about good and bad experiences. “Oh, man, I’ve seen things. Laughed, cried. Seen all kinds of things,” says Burns. “Ran into death – all kinds of things – on the road.”
Death made a cameo while he was with C.J. Chenier in Canada and the band’s van was low on gas. “We pull up at a station,” says Burns, and while the guys could tell the gas station was closed, they could hear a car running in one of the bays. “A policeman passed and saw us at the station and asked what was wrong. We told him we stopped here looking for gas and we told him a car was running in there.”
The officer investigated and informed the band that indeed a car was running because a man had decided to break on through to the other side with assistance from the fumes of automobile exhaust.
With a career half a decade-plus long, Burns endured slights and such along the way. But he’s made it this far and now he’s doing his own thing and so he’s cool with it.
“Being in this business, man, you’ve got some cats that when you try to do something they got to get against you,” says Burns. “But like I said, I’m not going to let it bother me,” he says. “I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing.”
And what he is doing is what comes naturally, be it with a guitar or trombone.
“I don’t care what instrument I pick up, when I get to play it, man, it’s what I feel inside of me. That’s what I bring out in my instrument,” says Burns “When I’m playing, I’m hearing and feeling what’s in me. I feel it. And it just comes out of me.”
For more on Burns and his band, visit the group’s website: WayneBlueBurnsBand.com.
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